Non-fiction writer and journalist Suketu Mehta spoke on Thursday about the role of writing in urban studies as part of the University’s “Introduction to Urban Studiescourse. 

Suketu Mehta is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and writes extensively about immigration and urban development. The talk on Thursday, titled “The Secret Lives of Cities,” was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and hosted by architecture professor Elihu Rubin ’99, who teaches “Introduction to Urban Studies.” The course is a series of lectures made by Yale faculty and external speakers, all from different academic disciplines, on their methods of urban studies.

“So much of the conversation in urban planning is buildings talking to buildings, and they forget that there are human beings living inside and underneath these buildings,” Mehta said during the talk. “So where I come in is I can speak to people who are doing the planning … I understand what they want to convey, and then I can render it into a story for the average educated reader.”

Mehta added that far too often, urban plans are “thrust down the throats of citizens,” serving the interests of real estate developers as opposed to the people. This is why communication between storytellers and urban planners is crucial for cities, according to Mehta.

He gave the example of the Hudson Yards development in New York City, citing that it was designed to “remind people of their poverty.” Mehta said that very few consultations were made with New Yorkers about the development, and that the 7 train was extended to serve the development, making it one of the most expensive mass transit developments in New York City. This extension for Hudson Yards occurred despite ongoing needs for the trains to be extended to outer boroughs of the city, Mehta added.

The Hudson Yards development includes luxury condominiums, malls and the Vessel, a 16-story structure of staircases.

“The narrative of what makes for a good city has been taken too much towards luxury condominiums and skyscraper office buildings, as if money is the only thing that a city needs,” Mehta said. “It’s not, actually. Too many rich people coming into a city can destroy as effectively as too many poor people coming into the city.”

The problem with cities today, according to Mehta, is that there is a disconnect in narration. He explained that on the one hand, there is an official narrative from urban planners and real estate developers about what a city should be. On the other hand, he continued, there are also unofficial, little stories about the people who live in those cities. A journalist’s job is to tell the unofficial narrative, Mehta said.

Mehta added that a journalist’s storytelling ability is especially important given the rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Vladmir Putin.  

“There is a global war of storytelling going on right now,” Mehta said. “A populist is basically a gifted storyteller, like the real estate companies that advertised Hudson Yards as the gleaming symbol of New York. They are gifted at telling a false story well. The only way a populist can be fought is by telling a true story back at it, a fact-checked story back at it. And that’s where journalists and writers come in. We can tell a true story better.”

Journalists’ and writers’ ability to tell a true story is the reason why supporters of populist leaders fear them, according to Mehta. 

The rise of populism also has deep roots in urbanization and immigration, he said. Cities, being cosmopolitan and diverse, are deeply threatening to people who enjoy individualism and small-like minded communities. The urban-rural tension gives rise to support for populism in the countryside, according to Mehta. 

“I think Suketu’s idea of locating the urban-rural divide at the core of the recent resurgence in far-right populism significantly raises the stakes of our conversations about urban issues,” Tyler Lutz GRD ’21 who joined the talk via Zoom, told the News. 

Anoushka Ramkumar ’23, a student in Rubin’s class, said that she was fascinated by Mehta’s idea of “immigration as reparation,” or the view that immigration is a way to fight centuries of colonization and oppression. 

Ramkumar said that she bought Mehta’s book on immigration after the talk to learn more. 

Mehta’s book about Mumbai, “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found,” was a Pulitzer prize finalist in 2005.